Should arts institutions do anything about BP?
Corporate sponsorship of the arts is not a charitable endeavour; it's business. A company expects to extract maximum value from its association with an arts institution or event, just as those in the arts expect to extract maximum value from their be-suited patrons.
The three main motivating elements are:
• private entertaining: exclusive behind-the-scenes access, private views, the best seats in the house
• brand association: some of the perceived glamour and integrity of the arts will rub off onto the sponsoring company
• staff retention: this only really comes in to play in a boom
These are known as "benefits" and will form the basis of the deal between the sponsor and the "rights holder". Now, in my experience the most successful sponsorships - the ones where both sides are happy - are those that are built around private entertaining. It's an easy benefit for the arts institution to provide and for the sponsor to value.
Where it gets trickier is the brand-association area. If the main reason for a company to sponsor an arts event is public exposure and enhanced goodwill, sport is, frankly, a much better bet. An exhibition, play or classical concert doesn't have the same reach, no matter how much the sponsor spends on advertising their association - known as leveraging.
The other problem with a sponsorship built around brand association is when one of the parties loses its allure. Companies are quick to dump damaged goods such as a misbehaving celebrity. But arts organisations are loath to do the same; they would rather bank the much-needed money.
So the current situation, where more than 170 creative artists have put their names to a letter attacking Tate Britain for accepting BP sponsorship is not straightforward, especially when money is tight elsewhere. Plus, many of those institutions that have benefited from BP's sponsorship over the years - such as the Royal Opera House, the British Museum, Tate and the National Portrait Gallery - will cite the oil company's loyalty and good manners. BP is known to be one of the least demanding sponsors and one with expectations which tend to be more realistic than most.
But for many, the company is now damaged goods, its reputation as spoiled as the Gulf of Mexico. What should the arts institutions do? Wave goodbye to a steadfast supporter when their need is greatest because of fears that their own reputations may be sullied by association? Or tough it out and hope the whole messy episode will be forgotten by Christmas?